I’m going to kill Mike.
Throughout the opening few chapters of Until Dawn, Supermassive’s PS4 exclusive ‘interactive movie’, straight out of the David Cage camp of minimal gameplay/maximum storyline, one of the characters was doing my head in. Unlike Cage’s games, which usually feature someone talking bollocks about fighting the internet or whatever the fuck happened at the end of Fahrenheit, Until Dawn embraces the cliches of the genre in which it is set, and Mike is very much the archetypical overconfident jock that meets his end at the hands of some supernatural killing machine. Annoying, loud, thinks he’s funny and definitely going to get himself stuck on the end of a madman’s blade if I have anything to do with it. And I do!
I don’t feel like I’m playing as the characters in Until Dawn. There’s barely any actual interaction with the game. You pilot them around the areas looking for optional clues, make decisions during cutscenes and deal with the occasional QTE sequence, but for the most part you’re watching Until Dawn unfold in front of you based on your actions. I don’t feel like I have to like any of them and I certainly don’t have to keep any of them alive, as the game continues to its conclusion no matter what happens. So, the only meaningful way of affecting the game are these decisions, which cause - as the game puts it - a butterfly effect, leading me down different story paths until I reach one of the possible endings. It’s never going to turn around to me and tell me game over. Instead, I’m a director. I’m Wes Craven. Well, maybe more Tom Six in my case, but the point is, when it comes to a decision to be made in Until Dawn, I’m choosing them based on what I want to see next and if that happens to be the unfortunate demise of one of the characters, then so be it. I mean, what kind of a slasher movie would end with everyone coming out the other end unscathed? A rubbish one, that’s what.
So, there you sit, on your director’s sofa, responsible for every decision this group of potential victims makes. When you see someone in a film making that awful horror movie mistake of going upstairs instead of bolting for the nearest exit, that’s on you. Until Dawn is deep rooted in horror movie cliche, so you KNOW making the choice to run upstairs is a bad idea, so the only reason you’d choose to do such a thing is if you wanted to see that particular character end up getting stabbed to bits. The game is never going to tell you ‘Game Over’, so there’s no fail state - just tell that blonde to go and examine the strange noise from the darkened room and sit back and watch the drama unfold. There’s no score chasing, no way to ‘git gud’ at Until Dawn - the fun comes from shaping the experience into something you want to see. Want a bit more action in a chase sequence? Botch a couple of the QTE sections and deal with the consequences.
It’s good then, that Until Dawn is a very well written videogame, otherwise your decisions would be for naught. Not just in regards to the twists and turns of the plot, but in an area crucial to succeeding within the horror genre. You end up giving a shit about the characters. You might not like all of them but you give a shit about them enough that you want to continue to see them in the game, fleshing out the plot and, no doubt, causing more drama. You don’t want them to die. I always refer to the ‘Saw’ movies when it comes to this sort of thing. It’s easy to forget, among the countless sequels, dreadful nu-metal and the appearance of that shite from Linkin Park that the first one is actually a really smart movie and I remember first seeing it and thinking ‘Man, I don’t want either of these guys to die!’, making the movie extremely tense in places. By the time the second one had rolled around, the focus of the films is on the sadistic traps and horrible deaths - you WANT these people to die, because you want to see what happens to them. It instantly becomes less scary, because you’re essentially siding with the fear itself. Look at every Nightmare On Elm Street or Friday 13th after the first movies, when the infamous killers basically became anti-heroes. No one EVER wants The Thing to win.
I ended up liking Mike, by the way. He's a hero.
Once you’ve finished Until Dawn, you’ll likely do what I did and look online as to how to save the poor kids that didn’t make it through the night and you’ll see that there’s actually not as much going on in the background as you initially thought. It was always going to be this way - Freddy Krueger is just a man in a suit called Robert and all those deaths at his knived hand were written by someone - scripted and unavoidable. Horror thrives on that first time viewing, edge-of-your-seat thrills and unexpected scares curated by a master of the genre. Once you can see all of the strings behind it the kick you get as a viewer is diminished, but Until Dawn gives you a chance, for once, to be the puppetmaster. Creating your own little thriller, teen horror or total fucking gorefest, because seeing the strings is still kind of fun when you’ve been the one pulling them.